I’ve unboxed, plugged in, configured, and tested over 300 “back to school” gadgets and apps over the past few months. Through it all, I had one main focus; to find something new that solves a common problem better than anything I (or my family) already have.
Back-to-school spending is expected to hit a record high this year, even as inflation soars and parents feel the pressure of soaring prices.
A recent Morning Consult survey found that only 36% of parents can afford back-to-school shopping this year without any problems. The NRF Annual Survey also shows that a third of families plan to cut other expenses to cover the cost of essentials for the new school year.
The number one priority for many? Electronic.
But what do we – or our children – really need? And how much do we have to spend to get something that fills that need without breaking the bank? Here’s a look at several products that earned an A rating for meeting — and even exceeding — my cynical tester-reporter-mom requirements.
Go beep to sleep
Sleep is a major issue in almost every family I know – and it’s often worse at the start of the new school year. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one-third of children aged four months to 17 years don’t get enough sleep.
A new study in the medical journal Lancet shows that a lack of sleep in children can impede neurocognitive development, which impacts memory, intelligence, well-being and can lead to lasting health problems.
One of the biggest takeaways from all the research available today is that kids (and adults) shouldn’t have devices in their bedrooms. Unless they are specifically intended to solve sleep problems.
One gadget that ticked all the boxes in this category is the VTech V-Hush Sleep Training Pacifier ($60). It’s designed for toddlers as young as two years old, but I know of a few families who use it for older kids to help them get into the new school year sleep routine. It helps create healthier sleeping habits and environments with stories, songs, a glowing ceiling projector, multi-color nightlight, and Bluetooth speaker. It’s all backed by science and expertise, and they offer a free consultation with a WeeSleep consultant.
For older children, teens, and college-aged students, Morpheus ($100) and Hatch Restore ($100) are great options, along with apps like the Calm app (iOS and Android) and Headspace (iOS, Android).
Encourage more STEM
Science education is a great way to encourage curiosity and creativity. Still, research shows it often takes a step back in early childhood education, and many children never quite catch up with their peers in other countries.
For this number, the GeoSafari Jr. My first microscope ($25) is a top pick. It’s a real working science tool that can open up new worlds to younger kids without overwhelming them. This fully functional microscope comes with 8X magnification, extra-large eyepieces, a child’s focus knob, and a bright LED that illuminates the details for even more discovery. This model is ideal for children from 3 to 6 years old.
For the older ones, take a look at the AmScope Kids Microscope STEM Kit for Beginners ($34). It includes a 52-piece set for budding scientists to use right out of the box. The entry-level compound scope has a built-in color wheel and rotating turret that gives you multiple magnification options starting at 120X all the way up to a close-up 1200X.
Even if you’re sick of hearing “Hey mom, that’s so disgusting, you gotta check it out,” both scopes provide great introductions to large-scale STEM research.
My student needs a laptop — HELP!
Children as young as four are already pretty good at using computers, but few parents know where – or when – to start when it comes to getting them their own device.
Many schools across the country loan out Chromebooks for classes, so you might be okay with what they give out. Around the age of 12, they often need to do more on digital devices, which is when sharing laptops and PCs between parents and siblings at home can become delicate.
A few things to do
Check student discounts and look for certified refurbished devices from gadget makers.
· Make sure it’s powerful enough to tackle all their school projects. For power and speed – check the processor – which should be at least Intel i5, Intel i7 or equivalent – like Apple M1 Pro. The more recent, the better.
· It should be light enough to fit in a backpack and trolley all day.
· Battery life should last all day. Search for 10 hours.
· Key features in the “to do” list also include:
· Memory/RAM – 4GB is fine for young children, but more memory is better, especially as they enter higher grades and college.
· Storage – the higher the number the better – but also more expensive. The bare minimum here is 64 GB, but 128 or more is even better.
A few things not to do when buying tech
Don’t go for the absolute cheapest unless they tick all the other boxes as well. There are several ways to get something of great value and quality for really cheap, but that’s with exchange offers and coupon code. If you pass a laptop for $100 or less on sale at a big box store, it’s probably not good enough to last through the holidays, let alone the entire school year.
I recommend starting kids off with a budget-friendly 2-in-1 device like the Lenovo Chromebook Duo 3 ($380). It’s one of the best and most versatile small Chromebooks around, and it’s great value for money. The 11-inch tablet comes with a detachable keyboard, built-in stand, and a cover for those inevitable drops and spills. It’s ultraportable for homework and offers solid performance, 10+ hours of battery life, and built-in virus protection.
Another similar device in this ideal price range is the Samsung Galaxy Chromebook 2-360 ($430 with swap options that can bring the price down to under $100). It’s another budget-
User-friendly 2-in-1 with great features including a 360-degree convertible touchscreen, Full HD webcam, super-fast Wi-Fi, all-day battery life, and built-in security.
Finally, make sure the device is intuitive and easy to use parental controls, which both do. Lock sites you don’t want them to visit, such as inappropriate content on YouTube, Reddit, and violent or pornographic sites. Set time limits and also make sure to set spending limits in the app.
My child says everyone has a smartphone
I wrote about age-appropriate steps for children regarding cell phones in last week’s column. Just like teaching kids to swim, ride a bike, or drive a car, teaching them how to use technology safely and responsibly starts with baby steps.
I recommended ‘drive wheel’ technology in last week’s story, including WIFI boot ‘phones’, smartwatches and child-safe cell phones that are better options than handing over an expensive handset and hoping for the best.
Start on a good note
After all the gadget testing I’ve done, a screen just to make you feel better is my new favorite thing. I love it so much I bought one for my daughter, who is entering her final year of college.
The “Inspiration” Presence display ($189) wants to put you in a better headspace. With a minimalist design, gorgeous illustrations, and stunning photography, it uses the scientific power of daily affirmations to deliver a personalized and carefully curated playlist of inspirational quotes.
If you’ve ever cut, printed, pinned, shared, or scrolled through motivational quotes, this is a great new way to surround yourself with always-on, visible wellness tech. The company says it’s designed to help you make meaningful changes in your life by building better habits, recycling thought patterns, helping you center yourself, and giving you daily doses of affirmations.
You need to log in with the free Presence app and then choose between playlists (called “Rays”). Options include “Reconnect with Nature”, “Movie Lines to Inspire”, “Meaningful Thoughts to Blow Your Mind”, “Inspiring Words for Kids” and words of wisdom from movie stars and luminaries – by Jennifer Lawrence and Drake – to Oprah and Albert Einstein.
Speaking of Oprah, I pretty much chose every gimmick Oprah’s Favorite Things a year or two (or more) before making his list for the last decade. I predict this will be one of them!
Wait, there’s more!
In the meantime, check out some of our other top picks from previous years that are still rising to the top today, including portable chargersthe Lumos Bike Helmet, Apple AirTags and Tile trackers. And be sure to let us know which affordable gadgets you use.